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LONDON – Summer is hardly over and MPs who have promised to show themselves at their best are already being tested.
Since the pandemic began, and despite a large majority in the House of Commons, Downing Street has grappled with not only the country’s government, but its own 363 Conservative Conservative MPs as well. Rebellions have broken out over welfare, support for children entitled to free school meals, relations with China and COVID restrictions.
The common wisdom in SW1 is that this irritation was fueled by difficulty in attempting to remotely enforce discipline during the pandemic and the sheer size and diversity of the current Conservative Party.
With MPs fully returning to the House of Commons for the first time since April last year, Whips – MPs tasked with enforcing discipline within their own ranks – are hoping to see a more united group behind the Prime Minister.
However, that is weighed down by two major political struggles that broke out in the first week.
MPs will vote on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s manifesto demolition plan on Tuesday to raise taxes to pay for health and welfare benefits. While the government easily won the first vote on the issue last week, legislation could have a tougher road ahead of them to pass it. Many MPs are deeply dissatisfied with the move, not supported by a YouGov poll for the Times on the weekend, which showed Conservative support at its lowest level since the 2019 elections.
“I’ll support it, but it sucks,” said one member elected in 2019. “I’m not necessarily against increasing social security, but the fact is that there is absolutely no plan for what the money will be spent on.”
In addition, Conservatives’ concern about the impending move to end a higher rate – or “increase” – of universal credit, the government’s flagship system, has been rumbling in the background since the beginning of the year.
In essence, both ranks are about how the party defines itself, with the urge for tighter social security reins worrying many so-called “blue” conservatives and the increase in national insurance for those concerned is worrying campaigned in recent elections with the promise not to raise taxes.
A former whip said it was noticeable that Tory MPs kept clinging to their own cliques even after returning to parliament – with newer MPs rarely speaking to the old guard – and that the party could do with an “away day”.
The government is expected to weather both storms this week, but they will be a longer-term headache for Johnson.
Eyes on the next choice
In January, six Tory MPs broke out of their ranks to support a Labor motion calling for the increase to be extended. Six former labor and pension secretaries wrote to the Chancellor in July make the same appeal as that Northern Research Group of MPs.
The argument worsened last week when the Financial Times reports that the government’s own modeling shows that the withdrawal of the increase in the universal credit could have “catastrophic” consequences.
Stephen Crabb, former Minister of Labor and Pensions, summed up his concerns about POLITICO: “There are now very few people who privately do not accept that the UC cut will not cause real problems for families. The government will withdraw from this decision if it wants to talk about reducing hardship or improving social mobility. “
On Monday, the Minister for Labor and Pensions, Therese Coffey, underscored the government’s position. “It is a temporary upswing that recognizes the reason for the introduction is coming to an end,” she told BBC Breakfast, stressing the need to “accelerate our plan for jobs”.
Even as she defended the move, she sparked new controversy, saying that applicants would only have to work two extra hours to make up for the end of the £ 20 per week increase. The Labor Party said this was wrong and that the reduction in output meant that someone had to work 10 additional hours.
What the government could save is the fact that there is nothing substantial to rebel about. The switch to universal credit was issued by a temporary ordinance that expires without a vote in the House of Commons. Another Labor-led debate on the matter is due next week, but MPs don’t expect many Conservatives to poke their heads over the parapet this time around.
A Tory MP who had previously criticized the government’s social policies said there had been a change in sentiment. “The colleagues came back from the summer and wanted to be supportive. These are tough topics that we all try to deal with and, in general, we want to be helpful to the boss. “
Any welfare revolt seemed doomed to failure as the government was “rock solid” and its mindset “hardened” over the summer. Several MPs said this was due to Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s determination to get a better grip on public finances, with the increase in social spending costing £ 6 billion a year, but also to a deeper skepticism about the role of welfare.
A senior Conservative MP said, “I think he really thinks social security is nonsense – that it doesn’t solve poverty, which we know, and acts as a barrier to virtuous conservative behavior, and he really means business about the whole of ‘ Work instead of welfare ” message that he would like to use in future election campaigns.
As one minister put it more diplomatically: “He inevitably lays the foundations for what the economy will look like and what we can say in the next election, simply because it takes a while for that to leak out. We have to be able to demonstrate fiscal responsibility, growth and jobs in the next elections, otherwise what’s the point of being the Tory party?
And while a lot about support for more social spending under red wall Conservatives are not a homogeneous group. Some of the Common Sense caucus in Parliament wholeheartedly support the end of the £ 20 hike or want the universal credit to be cut further.
Rather than attempting to change the Chancellor’s mind, MPs dissatisfied with the end of the survey are expected to focus their efforts on pushing through optimizations like changing the rejuvenation rate or adding extra support to applicants with children.
The message that MPs have heard repeatedly from the Treasury is that it must be able to put in place temporary measures related to the pandemic and give examples of how to carry it out.
The Chancellor may prevail at Universal Credit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he and the Prime Minister are sailing into a golden age of Tory cohesion.
Seasoned and junior MPs alike are uncomfortable that they are not taking enough of the low-tax and advancement message that led them to victory in 2019 to keep everyone engaged.